Los Angeles Park Introduces Birdwatching to Latino Families

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The third biggest park in Los Angeles sits among some of the most densely-populated, park-poor neighborhoods in the northeast part of the city. But many Angelenos have never heard of Debs Park. Tonight, the Audubon Center at Debs Park will continue trying to change that with a series of bird walks created for local families. KPCC's Molly Peterson offers a preview.

Molly Peterson: A sandy dirt trail rises above the hum of traffic on the 110 Freeway. To the delight of kids, including seven-year-old Rahina Samarita, the sound of birds in the brambles cuts through the noise too.

Eleanor Osgood: You guys! A woodpecker!
Rahina and other kids: Ah! It's right there, it's right there!

[Sound of woodpecker]

Peterson: Debs Park is northeast L.A.'s hidden wild. A cottontail bounces along a hillside; on a hot day, lizards seek a cool perch. But with an unmarked entrance on the Highland Park side, it can be hard to find.

Gabriela Castaneda: The one that we are hearing, who we cannot see making noise (brrrrrr), esta aqui.

Peterson: 30-year-old Gabriela Castaneda is Debs Park's naturalist. She's seen some wild places in her native Ecuador; sometimes, she says, these walks barely get clear of the parking lot.

Castaneda: When you are with beginner birdwatchers, you could just spend 20 minutes looking at one bird. And I think it's exciting because you can just observe the behavior, see what they are doing, and you're getting into the binoculars. It's all right.

[Sound of kids crunching around in bushes; Castaneda explains binoculars in Spanish]

Peterson: Birdwatching culture isn't the only gap Castaneda bridges on these walks; language is, too. Patiently, she explains how to use binoculars to a pack of three dozen people, a few couples, some older folks. Mostly, though, Spanish-speaking families... exactly the people the Audubon Society is looking for.

Glenn Olsen is executive director for Audubon California. He says a survey helped his organization figure out it wasn't connecting with many city dwellers.

Glenn Olsen: Our median age for Audubon was 55. Which was old. But we weren't reaching younger families. And we were pretty much 99% white. And California and Florida and Texas – all these important states for birds and habitats and landscapes that are important for nature weren't 99% white anymore.

Peterson: Audubon's six-and-a-half-million dollar center at Debs Park is a flagship for national outreach to Hispanic and Black communities. Getting in is always free. That's a come-on to the park's neighbors in Mount Washington, Montecito Heights, and Highland Park. The center's director, Elva Yanez, says she hopes the facility will explain nature to northeast Angelenos better than old-school environmentalism has.

Elva Yanez: We're now a nation of cities. And so our conservation efforts, of course, we need to protect the large landscapes, legacy conservation. But we have to really focus in on where people are. And that's in the cities. And so we have to take a different approach.

Peterson: Audubon chapters in Pasadena and L.A. have helped with that. They've fronted money for bird walks and lent volunteers like L.A. Audubon's Eleanor Osgood.

Osgood: Do the children speak English or just –
Castaneda: They do.
Osgood: Good, because my Spanish is not real good! (laughs)

Peterson: 135 kinds of birds use the park's 300-plus acres. But as Osgood rounds up this night's species for kids, she's disappointed that they're few and far between.

Osgood: Ready, what did we see? Swallows, house finch. Western scrubjay. Nettles woodpecker. Mourning dove. Boy, the birds were really hiding – yeah, I got the mourning dove...

Peterson: Dusk and a fat moon settle in along the downtown skyline. It's a first visit for many walkers: they'll have to come back if they want to explore further.

[Sound of binoculars dropping into box]

Peterson: Rohino Samarita, his wife, and their daughters drop their borrowed binoculars back into a box, and pick up donated Trader Joe's popcorn and root beer to enjoy with the post-walk movie screening in the center's courtyard. Samarita says this visit was a big success – no matter how many birds they saw.

Rohino Samarita: We are from Mexico, and over there we have a lot of places like this, but we never take care of that. That's a big mistake we are making. We are losing that because of the growing cities, and when we came here we can start thinking the importance.

[Sound of movie starting]

Peterson: Samarita's family will be back, and next time, he says they'll strike out on their own. If Debs Park's outreach works, he might see other families out birdwatching, too.

Note: Tonight, July 11, the walk starts at 7 p.m.; the film "Ocean's Oasis" starts at 8 p.m.